Some Filipinos probably thought that the family members of Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr. were speaking metaphorically when they complained about the infestation of “rats and roaches” in Revilla’s detention cell in the Philippine National Police Custodial Center. But they were being literal, and were not referring to other politicians, Revilla being the first pol to be detained there.

They were also said to have complained about “the heat,” to which Joseph Estrada, who was himself convicted of plunder, but was pardoned by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and who’s now mayor of Manila, proposed the obvious solution: he’ll have his son Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada’s cell, and probably Revilla’s too, air-conditioned.

These worthies were once again speaking literally, the word “heat” not being a reference to the metaphorical heat both senators and their geriatric colleague, Juan Ponce Enrile, are getting from the public over their supposedly committing plunder and graft in connection with the diversion of Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), or, as more picturesquely known, the pork barrel—an American invention, but so appropriately Philippine, the unofficial national dish in these parts being roast pig.

Enrile, however, is unlikely to join them, his age (90), more than his wealth and position, supposedly being the major factor in the probability that he will be detained in a hospital of his choice—presumably without the company of rats and roaches and in air-conditioned comfort. That likelihood has been further strengthened by Benigno Aquino III’s declaration that he “won’t object” if Enrile ends up in that uniquely Filipino phenomenon known as “hospital arrest.”

Lest the entire country lapse into despair as the media bombard it with these “human interest” and other equally trivial reports, among them how Revilla and Estrada are coping, as well as with such details as what they had for lunch and supper, there’s actually at least two collateral benefits from all these.

The first is that, thanks to the complaints of Revilla and Estrada and their families, some attention has been called to the foul state of the country’s prisons and the justice system of which they are a part. The second is how obviously the complaints about rats and roaches and heat proceed from a sense of entitlement and privilege resident in both Revilla and Estrada and their fellow politicians despite their frequent claims to being for the underprivileged and the poor.

Although both Revilla and Estrada have made a political career out of the claim that they’re for the masses, and for their show business provenance have stood out among their colleagues, every politician in this country has made the same claim. Enrile himself speaks to the poor and unlettered every election period in terms his campaigners think the former will understand by promising them the world in short campaign one-liners (remember “gusto ko happy ka”?).

Aquino III’s own campaign line in 2010—“walang mahirap kung walang corrupt”—was itself addressed to the poor, as is his current “daang matuwid” catch phrase, and such programs as his Conditional Cash Transfer scheme. And then there’s the former senator and still billionaire Manuel Villar, who claimed in 2010 that he once swam in garbage. You can review the utterance of every candidate during the campaign period, and the likelihood is that everyone of them said they’re for the poor, while eying a public office that will make them rich—or enrich them further.

There’s logic in this seeming folly. The politicos’ mainly appealing to the poor implies recognition on their part that the latter constitutes the biggest sector of the electorate, despite such claims as Aquino III’s that there’s less poverty in the Philippines thanks to his policy initiatives. This recognition compels them to seek identification with that sector, no matter their own elite or aspiring elite status—and, it turns out, their own bloated self-esteem, which in their minds puts them above the very same citizens who foolishly elect them to office in the mistaken belief that they’ll represent them.

Thus the demand for and expectation of perks even while in detention—perks, which, as every literate observer has noted, is denied the majority of detainees and prisoners, most of them from the poorest sectors of Philippine society. These detainees and prisoners are no strangers to heat, rats and roaches in their cells—in which they’re crammed together without regard for ventilation, their states of health, and even their ages, children being often held in the same cells as adults.

The heat is also enough for the elderly among them to suffer strokes and heart attacks during the summer months, and for the rest to catch leptospirosis and other water-borne diseases during the rainy season. But what’s worse is that the presumption of innocence for detainees whose cases have not been resolved is made meaningless by their prolonged, virtually endless detention, while the right to equal protection of the law is mocked by their inability to obtain competent representation because of poverty. And yet both phrases—the presumption of innocence and equal protection of the law—are currently and often mentioned whenever the question of the guilt or innocence of Revilla, Estrada and Enrile is mentioned, in blithe ignorance of the fact that neither right is available for ordinary, poor folk.

As for our two senator-detainees, their being in a specially constructed “custodial center,” their having a cell each to themselves, and the cell’s being well-lit, and equipped with sanitary facilities and running water, already constitute very special treatment. They don’t have to eat the PNP provided food—which we can assume is already several notches better than the slop regularly served their imprisoned constituents. Their families, after all, send them home-cooked, even catered feasts, as well as such other amenities as endless supplies of bottled water and soft drinks—and, should the PNP allow it, a TV set in addition to the air-conditioning Estrada says he’ll have installed in his son’s cell. (Expect Revilla’s family to follow suit.)

As for the rest of the Filipino people, they have infinitely more valid reasons for complaining than Revilla and Estrada, the country being the metaphorical equivalent of the same overcrowded, filthy cells into which their countrymen who run afoul of the law for various, alleged offenses ranging from murder to snatching a cellphone or stealing a piece of bread are imprisoned. Their only offense is that they were born in this earthly paradise.

If the country’s one big metaphorical cell, guess who’re the (metaphorical) rats, roaches and other vermin that infest it.

First published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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